Military Drones

Chris: Oh my drone it’s DRONE WEEK! Wait…what’s drone week?

Recently I was invited to the InfoCamp unConference at Berkeley where among the awesome and inspiring presentations, I sat in on Peter Swigert’s workshop on drones. Since the blog was deep in Oblivion, Pete and I agreed to coauthor a series of posts on this phenomenon, and also to set the record a little more straight for sci-fi fans and authors on the real-world state of drones.

Today, a first post on the scary, scary world of sci-fi drones.


Unmanned (either manual or automated) aerial vehicles, or drones, have become increasingly common in science fiction, likely a reflection of their increasing role in today’s society. While the future of drone technologies and their role in society are yet to be determined, science fiction has been conservative in its speculation. Most depictions of drones tend to suppose an expansion of the current military usage of drone technologies.

Sci-fi: Drones are scary, m’kay

The 2014 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop has drones that are clearly extensions of modern military drones: wicked Stealth-shaped things with perfect maneuverability for gunning down citizens.

Being welcomed as liberators.

Being welcomed as liberators.

Oblivion takes a similar approach, as drones are fully autonomous, big, scary technospheres used primarily for surveillance, monitoring, and firepower.

Jack facing a drone in bondage.

Jack facing a drone in bondage.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the drones are gargantuan floating things, each capable of monitoring thousands of square miles at a time, but the concept is the same: drones are a military technology used for surveillance and violence.

The Falcon, for scale.

The Falcon, for scale.

More recently, Chappie features a very scary military drone who ends up being driven by a psychotic operator against the eponymous, peaceful robot. [Nobody has responded to emails for a screener, so no lovely screen caps for us. -Ed.]

That all you got?

These representations of drones (and many others in the genre) are failures of the creativity of science fiction. While they embody well-founded concerns about drones, they’re monotone, and don’t match the creativity of drone makers right here in the real world.

Hey, I get it. It’s hard to know what drones will mean to future people. Drones combine a whole set of complex technologies that people didn’t know what to do with when they first came out as individual technologies: planes, cameras, GPS, and computers. Sometimes even the military applications aren’t clear. For instance, when the Wright Brothers discussed patenting their approach to the plane in Great Britain and helping the government develop military uses, they were rebuffed, as “Their Lordships are of the opinion that they [airplanes] would not be of any practical use to the Naval Service.”

Additionally, there is an understandable psychological horror at the flying thing that either houses an inhuman machine intelligence or arguably worse, that houses some distant human’s eyes and ears but without their stake in the locale or consequences. Blasted-earth, collateral damage, and horrible mistakes don’t seem to mean as much when the perpetrator can just turn off the monitor and not think about it. So…yes. That military part is pretty scary.

But science fiction films seem particularly confused about how to represent this technology and limited by this military thinking. This was true even before modern military drones were in use; as XKCD notes, The Terminator would have been a much shorter film if it had been developed after Predator drones were around.

From Our modern military can more effectively abstract the purposes of a drone soldier and design it like a plane, whereas old sci-fi depictions like The Terminator envisioned robotic humans.

From Our modern military can more effectively abstract the purposes of a drone soldier and design it like a plane, whereas old sci-fi depictions like The Terminator envisioned robotic humans.

But even as science fiction has tackled modern drones, it still builds on military models rather than considering civilian contexts. For instance, the “nanobots” of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still or 2009’s G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra suggest what might happen as drone technologies become miniaturized. OK, yes, the military is currently working on this. After all, why send a multimillion dollar Predator that can be shot down when thousands of small drones could more effectively infiltrate enemy territory and conduct operations? That said, this technology doesn’t have to be used in a military context. A micro-sized drone that could identify and poison an enemy’s water supply might be adapted to unclog an artery or kill a cancer cell just as easily.

From Gizmag: British soldiers have tested these Black Hornet Nano UAVs [Image: © Crown copyright]

From Gizmag: British soldiers have tested these Black Hornet Nano UAVs [Image: © Crown copyright]

But even as sci-fi catches up to modern military designs, that’s still only one set of effects for which drones have and might be put to use. In the next post we’ll take a pass at painting the rest of the non-military picture.

6 thoughts on “Military Drones

  1. Yes I’d love to see the drones from the Culture science fiction novels by Iain Banks depicted in film or TV. Smaller and harmless looking (but very very lethal if they have to be) they rely mostly on various kinds of force fields to move, manipulate things, protect themselves and even express emotional state. And in one book the drone member of a mission to a less developed culture disguises itself with a clunky metal body and an exhaust pipe, and asked to occasionally bump into things.

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